At a contentious meeting Tuesday night, where one resident’s outcry resulted in her being escorted out, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 to approve a zoning change that will allow a master-planned community to be built.
The project will create 1,900 housing units on about 580 acres in Axton, in the southwestern part of the county. The project could bring in as much as $3 million in annual tax revenue for the county, according to a preliminary estimate by the project developers, a local group called Southside Investing LLC.
The parcel along Martinsville Highway, or U.S. 58, was zoned A-1, agricultural, but will now be rezoned to RPD, a residential planning unit development district.
Over the course of the hourslong meeting, more than 20 residents spoke during multiple public hearings that dealt with different zoning aspects of the project. The auditorium where the meeting was held was almost entirely filled with county residents.
Only one resident spoke in favor of the project. Joshua Jennings said that he believes this project could help reverse population decline in the county. The county’s Industrial Development Authority chairman, Joey Faucette, also read a statement from the IDA in support of the development.
The IDA “strongly believes this project will benefit the Pittsylvania County citizens and taxbase,” Faucette said.
After the second public hearing, residents continued to shout their comments from the audience, and board chairman Darrel Dalton repeatedly banged his gavel and asked the crowd to settle down.
One woman who continued to raise her voice stood up and accused the board of ageism, saying that most of the people who live near the planned development are over 65 years old. After about 2 minutes, sheriff’s deputies walked her out, while the rest of the audience applauded.
Many residents wore matching T-shirts with the letters “MUD,” for mixed-use development, crossed out on the front.
“This is about as tough a vote as we’ve had,” said board member Timothy Dudley, calling it more difficult than the board’s Mountain Valley Pipeline and solar farm decisions.
Dalton, Dudley, Vic Ingram, Rob Warren and Robert Tucker voted in favor. Nancy Eanes and Ron Scearce voted against the project.
Warren said he had “wrestled with this decision” for some time because he understands the strong resident opposition, but he also believes that the development could create a lot of opportunities for Pittsylvania.
“Unless we embrace some change, we’ll lose our most valuable asset,” Warren said. “We’ve got a great school division, and we produce talented kids. But we lose most of them, because we don’t have opportunities for them here.”
Ingram also advocated for the project because of the housing it will create. The county is “really far behind in housing developments,” he said.
Scearce, who voted against the project, brought up concerns about whether the school system will be able to handle a large influx of families.
“The pupil population [at Tunstall High School] is 883,” he said. “This development is supposed to bring in 900 more students. Where are they going?”
This was also a concern for many residents.
Nathalie Bennett, a Tunstall High School teacher and a bus driver, said that personnel shortages are already straining the school system.
“Did you get the phone call telling you that there are kids who will be an hour late getting home because there aren’t enough drivers?” Bennett said. “I promise you, there’s not enough teachers, and there’s certainly not enough bus drivers.”
Bennett was also concerned about increased traffic that the project could bring.
“The high density of this is absolutely concerning to me,” she said. “Have you crossed 58 twice with a busload full of children? And now you’re thinking of adding 4,000 to 5,000 more cars to those roads.”
Most resident concerns revolved around traffic, the loss of agricultural land and the natural beauty of the county, and the possibility that this development could kickstart a chain of similar developments.
Michael Kendrick, a resident of the Tunstall District, where the project will be located, said that this type of development is not compatible with Pittsylvania County.
“What we put in the county should fit the county,” Kendrick said. “And once you do something, it’s hard to undo.”
Irvin Moss said that the board was more interested in “big money” than in the desires of its constituents.
“The wishes of the few are being pushed on the entire community,” he said.
Southside Investing’s initial application involved a slightly larger tract of land, at 614 acres. That proposal was unanimously recommended for approval by the county planning commission in June, despite resident opposition.
Since then, Southside Investing shaved off 35 acres from the project, and the board of supervisors’ vote, initially scheduled for July, was postponed until this week.
The change in acreage eliminates entrances to the community along Martin Drive, which residents had said posed traffic concerns.
Several board members voiced their appreciation for Southside Investing’s willingness to make concessions and listen to residents. The investing group held six information sessions that were open to the community.
But residents said that information had not been well-disseminated, and that many of their neighbors were unaware of the project.
Residents also said that they are not opposed to more housing in the county — they just don’t want the high-density housing and commercial opportunities that this project would bring.
The 1,900 residential units will be a mix of housing types: townhouses and single- and multi-family homes, as well as senior housing, said Thomas Gallagher, spokesperson for Southside Investing.
The homes will be market rate without any government subsidies, he said. According to a rough estimate by the developer, townhouses will sell for $175,000 to $250,000, and single-family homes for $250,000 to $350,000.
The units will help address the current housing shortage in the county, as well as prepare for the increase in housing demand when the Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill is claimed.
The Southside Investing property is just 9 miles from the megasite, where the county and Danville are working to attract a major developer, potentially bringing thousands of jobs and new employees to the area.
It will likely be a while before the county sees any new tax revenue from the project, because the permitting and construction processes will be lengthy, Gallagher said.
The project will be built in phases, with the residential units in the first phase. The full development will take about a decade to build out.
The development will include more than just housing. Southside Investing also wants to build a grocery-anchored commercial district, a hotel, a child care center and a community center.
“The mix of uses does two things,” Gallagher said in an interview. “It creates a sense of community, and it has a commercial element that would provide services not only for the folks that live there, but also for other people in the vicinity.”
But residents who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting said they didn’t want or need a grocery store nearby. It’s a way of life to go into town once a week to run errands, they said.
“If you live in this county, you know you drive to the grocery store, you plan your trips,” Jane Kendrick said.
Still, the board members who voted to approve the project said they believe the pros outweigh the cons.
“Not everybody’s going to be happy. I’m going to leave tonight and I’m not going to be happy, regardless of the outcome, because I know that there’s good people on both sides,” Warren said. “The only way we can probably come close to getting this thing right, is if both sides leave a little bit unhappy.”